Just stroll the halls of the local asylum, and the mellifluous yet deranged cries from the psych patients are sure to convince you that music and mental illness were simply made to go together. In any case, that's the conclusion Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkie came to when they composed Next to Normal, a pop-rock musical that went on to become a Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway hit. We Miamians will soon discover just how entertaining manic depression can be when the Actors' Playhouse puts on this show at the Miracle Theatre starting January 18.
The story centers on a seemingly average American family that, over the course of 16 years, is forced to cope with the increasing intensity of their matriarch Diana's mental disease and the barrage of medications and complications that come with it. Jodie Langel, whose acting credits include playing Cosette and later Epinone in the Broadway production of Les Miserables, plays Diana, our bipolar protagonist.
audience is made privy to Diana's off-kilter psyche right from the
opening number, in which the character at first appears to be engaged in
the completely normal task of preparing bagged lunches for the
following day. Soon, though, sandwiches litter the counter tops and
floors as she frenetically slaps together dozens upon dozens of them,
singing all the while. This is the first of many displays of erratic
behavior that emerge throughout the play.
Langel, despite her wealth of theater experience, said that Eva Peron was the closest thing to a mentally ill patient she had played prior to taking on the role of Diana. Diana's deep troubles and manic mood swings are new and interesting territory, both for the actress and for mainstream theater in general.
Langel explained that Diana's insanity and its source were deep and complex. "You definitely know there's something wrong with her. There's a family issue that the medication is trying to cover to make her not feel anything. Ultimately, when we go to get medication from the doctor, we're trying to take the pain away. So she's trying to take her pain away, her husband is trying to take her pain away, but her pain is always there."
Diana's mental illness brings with it a huge dependence on doctors and prescriptions that promise to bring normalcy, with little success. And so in preparing for the role, Langel visited several detox and drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers. "Diana's problem is not just a substance abuse problem, as much as a problem of being over-prescribed for 16 years. To me, the thought of what kind of doctor would allow that to happen -- just prescribing and prescribing and prescribing for 16 years -- it's like, my God, how did that keep going on? How is she allowed to be on this much medication for this long? So it's really interesting to enter the world of Diana, and how she feels every day, and what pill she's on this day or that day."
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To help curious audience members better understand the realities of mental illness, there will be several post-show talk-backs with cast members and doctors from the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.